Learning Laboratories

Learning Laboratories

Out of quests for quality and accountability, two-year institutions are embracing research in many forms.

Mention "susceptibility testing on staphylococcus epidermidis," and community colleges don't quickly come to mind. The same goes for "hydrogen fueling," "protein crystallization," or academic journals about the teaching of English.

Yet all of the above describe projects either currently in motion or that have been completed at two-year colleges. The world of research at community colleges is very real-and growing.

"Community colleges need to be thought of more as scholarly institutions," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "It's just that our form of scholarship is different from major research institutions."


Research efforts can help attract and retain students, as well as contribute to broader campus discussions.

Community college research is panning out at the national, systemwide, college, and classroom levels. It can entail the study of teaching and learning, a fast-growing realm, or discipline-area research (think peeking at bacteria under microscopes), which is less common. Or, it can be the evaluation of student outcomes, another booming area.

"Community colleges are now more and more in the national spotlight as being a key element of higher education," says Robert Gabriner, vice chancellor for institutional advancement at City College of San Francisco and former president of the research and planning group for the California Community Colleges. "Key because the colleges, all of them, are really the entry point for the largest number of students in the country, and clearly the largest number of students of color. We're the significant gateway."

Administrators at two-year as well as four-year institutions should pay close attention to the potential of community college research. It can help boost student success, raise institutional profiles, affect recruitment, smooth transfers, and contribute to state or national discussions.

One of the fastest-growing areas of research for community colleges is that of the institutional kind, meant to "help leaders measure how well their colleges are performing," says Boggs.

Anchored in the aim of developing the capacity of community colleges to educate America's changing populace, and backed by a skyrocketing number of state, federal, and nonprofit initiatives, this kind of research is drawing much attention. When a conference was recently put together for faculty and staff from the California Community Colleges to discuss strengthening student success, it became so popular that organizers had to cut off registration early.

Institutional research isn't without challenges. Many schools struggle to fund and staff their IR offices. "But," notes Boggs, "there's more and more recognition that institutions have to do research to become evidence-based in what they're doing."

One project, Achieving the Dream, is helping to light the way. Achieving the Dream provides grant money and support for institutions to focus on tracking, understanding, and making better use of data in order to improve student outcomes, particularly those of low-income students and students of color.

The initiative expanded this year to include 58 colleges in nine states; the first schools started their evaluations in 2004. "This is very risky, hard work," notes Carol Lincoln, the project's director. It takes courage for a college to look at its numbers and to talk about what is happening, says Lincoln, yet the payoff is worthwhile. "People know that it's important to be successful. If we don't do it with community college students, this country will be in deep, deep trouble."

Unlike most of their four-year counterparts, community colleges are centered almost exclusively on students. While faculty members at major research universities divide their time between research, writing, and teaching, those who teach at two-year schools focus solely on helping students gain skills and knowledge.

That's why the study of teaching and learning makes good sense for community colleges, says Howard Tinberg, a professor of English at Bristol Community College (Mass.). "Given the relative small size of classes and the chance to get to know the students, we are in a good position to study the class and study our own intentions, as well as the outcomes of our courses," notes Tinberg, also director of BCC's Writing Center and editor of the journal Teaching English in the Two-Year College.

One challenge is making sure that community college faculty have the tools to study student learning correctly. Appropriate methodology involves developing interview questions, examining survey responses, and analyzing texts.

Still, for many practitioners, classroom-based research is a promising area, with teams of faculty members forming around the country. Tinberg likes the trend. "I think it would raise the profile of community colleges, hopefully raise us up the ladder of prestige," he says. "We would be seen as not only teachers, but as thoughtful and reflective practitioners of teaching-as good scholars."

To Boggs of AACC, this type of research is a natural fit for community colleges. "I don't think our mission is to do the kind of cutting-edge research that will cure cancer," he says. Faculty members didn't choose to work at two-year schools to "be alone in laboratories," he notes. "They did it to teach."

So is the kind of research that might involve laboratories, excavations, or literary journals off limits for community colleges? Not exactly. Two-year schools can find ways to integrate discipline-area research into their missions without losing a teaching-centered focus.

Oakton Community College in suburban Chicago provides a useful example. The school of 43,000 students per semester is home to the Science Research Lab Experience, a hands-on program that combines learning science and, as promotional materials state, "doing science."

The interdisciplinary course follows guidelines for inquiry-based learning established by the National Science Foundation. It integrates six faculty members and six to 12 students, weaving together aspects of such study areas as biology, chemistry, and medical laboratory technology. Students are expected to conduct hands-on research and literature searches and make presentations on their findings.


"We've developed a new paradigm that allows the community college to be at the table as a full partner." -Ruth Borger, Lansing Community College (Mich.)

The Science Research Lab Experience works well for many reasons. Offering the chance to research, say, microbial biofilms, provides Oakton another way to attract and educate students.

Since community colleges employ many professors who are out working in their professions, it is not difficult to find opportunities for research. One of Oakton's faculty members, for example, works at the Chicago Botanic Garden and has teamed with students to investigate the underground transfer of fungi between trees. At Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility managed by the University of Chicago, Oakton students have worked on crystallizing protein from ostrich eggs using an advanced photon source.

"The biggest benefit is that students leave here with a good understanding, at least from a basic standpoint, of what it takes to do research," says Dennis Graham, Oakton's dean of science and health careers. "We know from talking to some professors that these students have a good step up on being able to jump in and do research right away (at four-year universities)."

Research can help solve statewide dilemmas, too. Lansing Community College is doing its part to help Michigan fuel its economic engine-with hydrogen power, that is.

LCC, which serves about 40,000 students a year, is conducting research and development on hydrogen-powered engines so that they can become a realistic, cost-effective alternative to today's gas-powered cars and trucks.

It's all part of LCC's Alternative Energy Initiative, which promotes alternative energy application training and is funded through a $1 million U.S. Department of Energy grant and approximately $300,000 from NextEnergy, a Michigan nonprofit.

Research gives schools such as LCC a way to connect with other institutions and participate in statewide conversations. In the past, community colleges have been "brought in to a new technology application in a very linear process, at the end," says Ruth Borger, vice president for college advancement at LCC. "The university developed the technology and transferred it to market, and then the market looked to develop its workforce and the community college to train. In this initiative, we have developed a new paradigm that allows the community college to be at the table as a full partner in developing the technology."

The same students who develop hydrogen-powered engines are also the ones learning to build and service them. Therein lies a key strength of community colleges and their research: the ability to synergize learning and living.


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